AUGUSTA — A bill that would ask voters if they want to legalize marijuana is all but dead following a vote by the Senate Monday to defeat the measure.
The Senate voted 24-10 to reject the referendum following a lengthy debate between those who argued that lawmakers should act now to regulate what they described as the inevitable legalization of marijuana and those who worried that sending the issue to voters would double as an endorsement by the Legislature.
Monday’s vote in the Senate was a more decisive rejection than the House, which defeated the measure 71-67 on Friday.
As originally drafted the bill, L.D. 1229, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, would have legalized and taxed marijuana. It was later amended in committee to put the issue to voters. Should Mainers agree to legalize marijuana, a state agency would then determine how the sale of cannabis should be regulated and taxed.
Supporters in the Senate said that lawmakers too often failed to get ahead of issues with popular support.
Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, compared marijuana legalization to the authorization of casinos. Valentino said that repeated casino referendums ultimately allowed supporters of specific gambling projects to determine how revenues would be distributed instead of the state. She said Maine risked the same outcome by failing to draft rules regulating and taxing marijuana should voters agree that it should be legalized.
Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, agreed. He said special interests groups that craft Maine law via referendum create laws that are “not in the best interest of Maine.”
Opponents worried that passing the bill would signal approval of legalization by the Legislature. They said marijuana use poses health risks, serves as a “gateway” to harder drugs and stunts the cognitive development of teenagers.
“A vote to pass this is an endorsement of the use of dangerous drugs,” said Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a former Maine State Trooper.
Despite the defeat, advocates of legalization believe the legislative results signal headway in the debate.
David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told the Press Herald on Friday that supporters are hoping to launch a citizens initiative and put the question on the state ballot in 2016.
The Marijuana Policy Project is a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that backed the 2012 legalization campaign in Colorado that ultimately resulted in the legal possession, use and distribution of marijuana.
Steve Mistler- 620-7016